Poverty: Scotland creates legal duty to provide period products free to all

Jennifer VenisMonday 26 September 2022

Scotland has become the first nation in the world to make period products free to access for all, four years after it mandated that free products be available in education settings.

The Period Products (Free Provision) Act 2021 (the ‘Act’), passed in late 2020, came into effect in August. It places a legal duty on local authorities to ensure ‘anyone who needs’ products used during menstruation – such as tampons, menstrual cups and sanitary towels – can access them for free. Jackie McGuire, a Member of the IBA European Regional Forum and co-head of the Government and Business team at Brodies, specialises in public law and the local government sector. She believes ‘local authorities will respond positively to the challenge’.

She highlights that in Edinburgh, free period products are already available online and in many venues including schools, community centres and libraries, and the City of Edinburgh Council has announced that people can collect products in the majority of public buildings from November. Glasgow council is also considering distribution in venues maintained by local third-sector organisations to improve availability.

According to the World Bank, 500 million girls and women globally don’t have access to adequate facilities to manage their periods, and across developing countries roughly half of all women and girls are estimated to sometimes be forced to use items such as rags, grass and paper. In the UK, a Plan International study published in April found that more than a third of girls aged 14–21 struggled to afford or access period products during the pandemic.

Known as ‘period poverty’, the regular inability to afford or access period products has an impact on many aspects of people’s lives, particularly education. A follow-up Plan International survey found 64 per cent of 14–21-year-old girls surveyed in the UK had missed full or partial school days because of their periods, with 13 per cent of girls missing a full day at least once a month. As well as access to products, stigma was a significant concern, with one in six reporting being teased or bullied about their period.

In some countries, including the UK, governments have scrapped taxes on period products to reduce costs, or followed Scotland’s lead to make them freely available in education settings. Otherwise, efforts to support access have often been left to civil society.

Providing access to free period products is fundamental to equality and dignity, and removes the financial barriers to accessing them

Shona Robison
Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Housing and Local Government, Scottish Government

Scotland’s Act builds on existing efforts to address barriers to access, including by contributing £27m towards funding access to products in public settings since 2017. ‘Providing access to free period products is fundamental to equality and dignity, and removes the financial barriers to accessing them,’ said Shona Robison, the Scottish government’s Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Housing and Local Government, in a press release.

As well as making the products free to access, the Act has been worded to address stigma and eliminate bureaucratic barriers. People should be able to obtain products ‘reasonably easily’, with ‘reasonable dignity’, and processes should not be ‘complex nor bureaucratic’ – no forms should need to be completed. No-one should have to justify why they need the products or how many, nor provide information beyond simply facilitating delivery.

Besides these requirements, the country’s 32 councils can decide how to fulfil their duties. McGuire says the language of the Act enables flexibility for local authorities to adjust approaches to meet residents’ needs. ‘It is evident from the responses that we are seeing among Scottish councils that they are looking at approaches best suited to local communities and that these are being informed by both statutory and non-statutory consultations’, she says. ‘I think a degree of flexibility will be employed with a view to meeting local need.’

The Orkney Islands Council, for example, will be providing products in all public toilets run by the council, as well as internal ferry services, in local schools, at Orkney food bank and elsewhere. The Council is also piloting an online service with delivery direct to recipients’ homes, to make it easier for residents in rural areas.

‘In some local authority areas, there is additional emphasis with regard to online provision given the challenges that local geography will present, particularly for more remote communities’, McGuire says. ‘Overall, I think local authorities are giving careful consideration as to how the law ought to be implemented to good effect.’

With the support of the Scottish government, social enterprise Hey Girls launched the mobile app PickupMyPeriod, which points users to the nearest collection point.

The Act has taken an inclusive approach to ensure people of all gender identities can access the products, using gender-neutral language and actively acknowledging the needs and barriers faced by people whose sex does not correspond to their gender identity. As the Act’s explanatory notes highlight, ‘by defining a person’s need in terms of menstruation by the person, this section ensures that the Act applies to transgender and non-binary people who menstruate, and not just to women and girls'.

The Act’s equality impact assessment highlights ‘transgender people may experience greater difficulty accessing period products, because menstruation is not associated with their gender identity’, which may in turn ‘impact their wellbeing and can be a source of stress’.

Local authorities must ensure anyone who menstruates can access these products, ‘including transgender men and non-binary individuals’, as part of ensuring a ‘dignified approach’. Some local councils, such as Orkney Islands, are also providing period products in men’s bathrooms and other male-dominated areas to reduce stigma and ensure men can collect provisions for others who need them.

When Scotland became the first country to make period products free in education settings, many other countries followed its lead, including the central government in the UK, and there’s hope that this pattern will replicate with this Act. ‘I would like to think that other countries will follow suit’, McGuire says. ‘Scottish councils are keeping provision under review. Others might benefit from understanding lessons learned as the new initiative beds in in Scotland, including from the various consultation exercises that have been undertaken by Scottish councils.’

Image credit: Korta/AdobeStock.com

Download the IBA Global Insight app

Access expert analysis on international rule of law, business and human rights

Join the IBA

Expand your international network, gain new business and learn about the latest legal developments through IBA digital content and events, with IBA membership. Available for individuals, students, law firms, bar associations and corporations.

Find out more